Maugham's Mirror Tricks

Maugham By Ted Morgan Simon and Schuster, $17.95

There was a young lady from Guam

Who peddled her charms, charm by charm,

Inspired, I suppose,

By the classical prose

Of W. Somerset Maugham. --Ogden Nash


THE CURTAIN RISES and reveals an opulent set: the pool behind a sprawling Riviera mansion. The characters include the host, a Grand Old Man of English Letters, and his guest, the fashionable, wealthy, titled, or ornamental, who gossip and munch on scones. As the drama begins, it reveals a game of ambitious, but subtle, manipulation which some characters play at a leisurely pace, others with greater determination. Curiously, as the intrigue unfolds, the audience begins to recognize itself on stage. In horror, or delight, spectators watch the dissection of the characters' worst sides--their own. The Grand Old Man is W. Somerset Maugham, the British playwright, novelist and essayist, and the Riviera mansion, as well as the drama, is his. Maugham in his lifetime presented his friends and acquaintances with many such little surprises. Today Ted Morgan turns the spotlight back, dazzlingly, into Maugham's eyes. Morgan, in his meticulous biography, sketches the writer as a man who exploited his friends and their lives for material, but rarely dared to offer up his own psyche to such public scrutiny.

Morgan's volume forms a monument to Maugham--its size testifies to the complexity of the subject and the exceptionally active life he led. Yet Morgan does not attempt to deify the writer, revealing not the successful, exciting, respected literary profile Maugham wished to project, but the often caustic, seldom genuinely charming man, obsessed with his literary shortcomings--he considered himself a failure for not winning a Nobel Prize--and haunted by his own homosexuality and his fear of public exposure. Born during the reign of Queen Victoria, he clung to Edwardian values of keeping up appearances; he had many affairs with women, and eventually married and fathered a child, for propriety's sake alone. Even during the fifties and early sixties, until the time of his death, he took pains to conceal "the love that dares not speak its name," and flared up violently at any reference to his taste for young men.

Morgan reveals that Maugham's homosexuality doesn't emerge in the 80 or so works he published because he disguised his male characters as women for his readers' supposed benefit as well as his own protection. Morgan reconstructs Maugham's process of transforming personal experience into convincing literature in lengthy and detailed accounts of Maugham's yearly trips to exotic places like Thailand or alligator-infested jungle rivers. His secretary-companions, Gerald Haxton, his lover for 30 years, and Alan Searle, who was living with him when he died, almost always accompanied him. None of Maugham's works is purely autobiographical, but he seems to have come closer than almost any other writer to basing all specifics in his work on personal experience. Morgan shows that many of Maugham's works consist almost entirely of events or characters lifted directly from his life: like his character Alroy Kear, for example, based on Hugh Walpole, Maugham's friend until the publication of Cakes and Ale--so thinly disguised, as well as unflattering, that those involved sued Maugham for libel.

Morgan does not attempt to integrate literary criticism of Maugham's works into his biography, but he summarizes each play, novel and short story, and relates them to the author's own life. By leaving complex analyses to the critics, Morgan draws out only the elements in Maugham's works which cast light on his subject. Morgan writes of an early play,

Mrs. Craddock is a novel in which we see Maugham working out his familiar obsessions--the mother endangered in pregnancy, the stillborn child, the pain of love, and the quest for freedom. Just as Maugham identified with his mother, he makes Bertha Craddock his alter ego...Bertha represents both Maugham's mother and Maugham; she is the unconsciously disguised homosexual lover.

Generally, Morgan confines his discussions of Maugham's works to fruitful explorations of the characters. Occasionally, however, he goes overboard in his psychological dissection: "Bertha's finger fetishism begins to seem like an unconscious homosexual fantasy of the author's." When Morgan sticks to the biographical narrative he has researched so well, he fares much better.

In the most entertaining sections of the book, Morgan explores Maugham's life at Mauresque, his Riviera home--invitiations to which were highly sought after among the British and French as well as American jet-set. Maugham received hundreds of visitors there during his life, mostly men, later using many of them as material for his books and plays. Here, Morgan's style becomes lighter and slightly disjointed as he skips from one anecdote to another. Visitors included Noel Coward, Jean Cocteau, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Gladys Stern, whom Morgan describes as "bursting fat." Morgan looks back to Maugham's youth, when he had to live in the unfashionable section of London and take the streetcar, instead of a taxi, to attend the smart dinner parties to which he was invited. In that young man he finds shades of the self-serving social climber Maugham wrote about when he depicted Hugh Walpole as Alroy Kear in Cakes and Ale.

Yet Morgan remains scrupulously objective throughout Maugham. He frequently cites letters and documents, hundreds of which he examined, whenever he discusses any of Maugham's personal affairs over which there was controversy. His explanation of Maugham's attempt to adopt Alan Searle, his secretary and lover, and to disinherit Liza, his daughter, which caused a widely publicized lawsuit and scandal, casts Liza in a more favorable light than most previous accounts.

Of Human Bondage, considered Maugham's greatest work, formed the basis of his literary reputation. He describes himself "in the front rank of second-class writers"; in this novel only, perhaps, did he rise above that description. Morgan makes no attempt to judge Maugham's literary importance, preferring instead to defer to other writers like H.G. Wells, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser, who said Maugham was "a great artist" and Of Human Bondage a work of genius. Morgan also cites critics like Malcolm Cowley, who thought Of Human Bondage Maugham's greatest work, and asked, "Why did he never climb back to the same level?"

Of Human Bondage was the story of Maugham's youth, with little alteration. It is the only one of his major works to examine his own life before he became a writer, instead of the lives of those who surrounded him afterwards; leading the life of the writer and traveller from the moment the finished medical school, then, may have paralyzed his work. Drawing from his own life, he could examine only the concerns of a writer, socialite, and traveler, much as pop singers today dwell incestuously, in their lyrics, on singers and singing.

This, however, is not Morgan's thesis, for he has no thesis, but relies on the simple value of a story presented objectively. Without a damning or praising conclusion from Morgan, the aspiring writer and the aspiring socialite can choose to admire Maugham's success or to discard him as incapable of true creation. Morgan's biography brings his life in focus with his literature, revealing how Maugham obliterated the fine line between his life and his work.

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